William Fowler Collins – A Conversation about Process and Processing, Space and Place


William Fowler Collins released the epically cinematic drone piece Hallucinating Loss last year on his own Western Noir label. He has since released the Alone Inside The Walls Of Night cassette on Tapeworm and is about to hit the road for a tour through Europe with Emma Ruth Rundle so we thought what better time to chat about the sounds between the spaces and other such things.

Cyclic Defrost: I first came across your music with Perdition Hill Radio, a friend insisted I bought it from him at a record shop, I did and as soon as the first track come on I was blown away. It was one of those wonderful experiences where I had no idea what the music was, how it was made, how it was constructed but it really had this sense of space and place. When I looked you up online and I found a video of you playing guitar I was a little surprised, I had no idea what the sound source was for that for that piece. And I just thought that was really beautiful. So let’s go back then we’ll come forward. What’s your process of getting that sound space that you did when recording pieces like Perdition Hill Radio?

William Fowler Collins: It was released in 2009, and it was recording of a lot of guitar then I was processing some of it using SuperCollider, which is a text based synthesis software. I learned that at Mills College. I don’t come from a computer music background, but I use computers as part of my day job. So I was familiar enough with looking at code so I could construct these patches that were somewhat unique to what I was interested in, which is processing recordings. There’s a lot of guitar that was recorded that I then processed and pitched down, granular synthesis. I’m being general, I’m trying to remember, but that changed things and made it less familiar. I could hear different music ambitions other than a guitar, but the guitar was the source. Since then, I’ve gradually moved to not processing very much, but that’s what’s going on there.

Cyclic Defrost: Because it doesn’t sound like a guitar, which is a really beautiful thing. So once you’ve created those tones and you figured it out, do you strive to be able to recreate that sound without that processing?

William Fowler Collins: I think so, because it all comes from me. I don’t really like using computer on stage. I mean, I’ve done it before on different projects, but I like to play my guitar and make it sound unfamiliar, so it doesn’t sound like a guitar. And then I can actually hear whatever the music is that’s coming out of the guitar, because when you’re playing guitar so much, you almost get too close to really hear what’s going on. You need a little perspective. And so I think part of the processing actually Helped me pull back and see what was going on there musically. It’s just kind of stretched and contorted it in a way that gave me a new perspective on music. I think it’s probably 14, 15 years since I made that music.

Cyclic Defrost: It’s incredibly evocative. Tell me about Field Music, that one is a little different. You have synthesizers and drum machines, some other sort of like more rhythmic lines in there. So was that intentionally different? I mean, obviously that was recorded probably ten years after you did Perdition Hill Radio.

William Fowler Collins: So Field Music was, I think there’s one track that was a processed guitar and then it’s mostly synthesizer. I was learning how to meditate, and I was really focusing on the minimal. Minimal tone, mental energy and getting to know my synth. I was definitely interested in percussive stuff too. Soul Jazz records has these really cool compilations of voodoo drumming, so I’d been listening to that, then using a drum machine and processing it with SuperCollider, which is where you get some of that percussive storm that happens. For those concerts I was I was using a synthesizer and I had a laptop that was running drum machine software. So that was that was a different setup. No guitar, just very focused on that sound.

Cyclic Defrost: How important is it for you to be able to translate the stuff that you record to a live experience, or how close does it have to be? What’s your process there?

William Fowler Collins: Well, there’s the tradition, at least in the rock world, to make a record that has songs and then then go tour and support the record and play the songs that you wrote, which is fine if you want it. That’s the model. For me, that almost never works out that way because I just want to make the record that I want to make at the time. Then when I want to play live, if I had a budget I could bring more people, and I could really create some of the albums a little bit differently. But as far as just myself, lately I like the challenge of just doing solo guitar and focusing on that and my techniques around that. I’m not closed to doing certain things. Like I just said, for Field Music I was using a synth and laptop setup. I was kind of recreating some of the pieces on the album, absolutely. Hallucinating Loss has got some guitar, but then there all these other players, maybe at some point I’ll have a chance to recreate some of that. I would love to do that with some of those people, and I hope to do that at some point. But for now, I’m doing different things there, while at some point I want to make a solo guitar record.

Cyclic Defrost: Let’s get onto Hallucinating Loss, this one seems to be a lot more collaborative. And you’ve got quite a lot of other players, you got voice, you’ve got a lot of other elements in there. Even the language about the way that it’s been presented feels like much more of a film score or something. The other music you make is obviously very evocative, but this one seems a lot more precise and like lots of decisions have been made. What has it been different to work on this record compared to the other ones, and how has your process been different?

William Fowler Collins: This one was definitely different. My marriage was coming to a close, so that was a big life change, and then the pandemic was happening, so the music was probably a way to make sense of that and to tell those stories in a way through the music.

I’m trying to figure out the order of things. I got Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, who record as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, involved. They’re on the last Swans album (Leaving Meaning). They’re out in the world and doing a lot of Eastern European kind of stuff with their band. They live in New Mexico and they’re friends of mine, so I recorded with them. I had an idea in mind. I had a mix and I wanted some Moroccan kind of percussion and some violin and viola. I was able to give them loose ideas. I went over to their studio and hung out and in a couple of takes we had everything. I wanted their response to a particular idea that I had for that was for Preliminal Rites and that was the one in person collaboration.

I was able to facilitate Aaron Martin who was the is the cellist that plays on Interpreting Nightmares and also Hallucinating Loss. He and I had been working on material that I then asked him if I could use some of it for the record. I processed some of his cello, some of it kind of heavily. That’s how he became involved, it was a little bit indirect.

And then the vocalisations, the stuff with Johanna Hedva and Maria Valentina Chirico were kind of impulse decisions. With Maria Valentina Chirico, I didn’t know her at all. I hadn’t met her. She followed me on Instagram, and I was curious about her work. I saw that she had background in classical and baroque singing, and she also does folk music, but at the time she hadn’t released any of that stuff. I was curious and I thought I could give her some music and see if she wants to respond to it and either it’ll work out or it won’t. So I took a chance and I wrote to her and said, if I give you a mix, would you want to try to sing on it? And she was into it. And so I sent her the music that me and Jeremy and Heather had worked on and asked her for some background vocals. And she nailed it. And so that’s how that piece came together. Then she sent me something else, just her singing along to some harmonium playing. And I responded to that, and that’s how that’s the story of how I got involved with her.

And with Johanna I didn’t know them either. They’d Tweeted a video of themselves playing in this Los Angeles art space called Human Resources. I had played there years ago with Aaron Turner, and it’s a really reverberant space. Basically I made a comment on their Twitter about the reverb in the space and they wrote me and they said that they were fan of mine. I got the courage to email Johanna and ask them to sing on a track, so that’s how that happened. They sent me four different tracks of vocal takes and I used all of them, so that just came together magically. That was the last piece on the album that I finished, that was around March 2020 as the pandemic was really picking up. I finished mixing it and then the computer I had, which was over a decade old, died. So I had everything done and that was it.

In a roundabout way, it was kind of this impulsive, improvisatory process, even with bringing in these collaborators because I just really didn’t have any preconceived idea about it. I just said, here’s my chance, fuck it, I’ll branch out. And that’s a great way to work.

Cyclic Defrost: That’s amazing because it sounds like there’s so many intentional decisions, and obviously that comes with your crafting of everything once you’re putting it together. When the vocal on Death Acquires A Different Meaning comes in, it sounds like something completely different because we start in a kind of familiar place to what I would expect by putting one of your records on and then we’re somewhere else. I am interested in the process behind how you arrange it and compose the music. How do you usually go with it?

William Fowler Collins: It is a little bit of recording and then editing, and a lot of it comes from improvising. I’ll start with guitar or mellotron or some way of working and by the end of the piece, it’s all it’s very well formed, intentional, there’s not much left. It’s improv, but that’s how it comes together. And then when I have a body of work, I sit back and look at it and let’s try to see how it sounds together. I may get a feel for a narrative. I love watching film, but there’s never a literal narrative with my music and everyone is going to interpret things differently. But somehow there’s an abstract narrative, and I’ll listen over and over again and maybe some pieces don’t make the album, and then I figure out how to arrange them. And then of course, if I’m dealing with a medium like vinyl, then I have a certain time limit to that’s imposed on me. But that’s how that came together.

Cyclic Defrost: How important is it for you to represent or build a sense of space and place with your music? Or is it more about feelings and mood?

William Fowler Collins: When I’m thinking about music, I’m thinking about the various dynamics. And then mixing is for me, almost like painting. There’s foreground, there’s background. If I’m thinking about film or story, I’m thinking about setting. They’re not necessarily stories that are autobiographical, so whatever the music is, it’s kind of telling me. But a lot of that editing is fading in and fading out sequences like they were a scene. I keep calling them scenes, but they’re really tracks. That’s what I think of it. I went to Mills College, I don’t write and read and write music or have that kind of a classical background, but that’s how I’m thinking of things. I’m thinking of things that can be really quiet, like in classical music, you’ll find really quiet sounds and really loud sounds. I like to utilise the whole range.

The byproduct of living here in New Mexico, people seem to pick up on this in all my music, and I don’t know that it’s something that I’m doing consciously, but there is a lot of wide open space in New Mexico. It’s the West, and there’s all the mythology with the West and the history that always seems to come through. I love Westerns and I think that’s imprinted all over the music. I mean, just to go the further on the film because, it’s cinematic. I think all my music is cinematic, but it seems to be getting more so. But when you’re bringing in different voices like from the various collaborators that are on the record you’re bringing in different characters into a story and they’re telling a story, so that opens up a lot more as far as what you can interpret.

Hallucinating Loss is out now on vinyl and digital through Western Noir, Alone Inside The Walls Of Night cassette is available through The Tapeworm, and if you happen to be lucky enough to be in the vicinity of Germany, Serbia, Hungary (all dates here) then please go seek out some magical music in some incredible sounding venues.


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